Review of Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones

This spring I bought the book Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones.  It was listed as a textbook for the Advanced Methodology class at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), which I hope to attend one day.  I recently re-read it and completed most of the exercises.  This is a very good textbook on the genealogy proof standard and required reading to understand the standard for publishing articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ).  Perhaps this is only natural since the author has been an editor for the NGSQ for a number of years.

First some notes about the book format.  Inspired by Dick Eastman’s efforts to go paperless, I bought this book in Kindle form.  However, having read the book and having done (almost all) the exercises now, I would suggest buying the physical book instead.  Many of the chapters have exercises with one or multiple charts to fill in, which would be much easier to complete with the physical book.  (I took screen shots of the book’s charts to fill out and printed them out, but that can get tedious.)  Also, many exercises reference the two NGSQ articles in the back of the book.  The Kindle version is missing a number of the charts and diagrams from the articles.  I wrote the NGS staff about this, but as far as I know this is still a problem.  This is not a complete deal-breaker since the articles still make sense without them, and with an NGS membership you can look up the original articles, but overall the formatting in the physical book makes the articles easier to read.  Also, there are references in the text to pages numbers and such that are not always clear from the Kindle version.  A plus of the Kindle version is that you can easily write virtual notes, add virtual highlighting, and jump to different sections.  But if I had to do it again, I would just buy the physical book.

The general outline of the books follows the Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS).  If you have seen any of the lectures sponsored by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), they have likely mentioned the Genealogy Proof Standard.  This is the process that the genealogists “in-the-know” who work on the BCG board, and who judge applicants for membership, have laid out for members to follow.  The genealogy proof standard has five steps.  These are:

  1. do thorough research in all the sources that a researcher experienced in the place and time period would search,
  2. cite your sources well,
  3. consider the quality of sources and also compare the information given by the sources,
  4. resolves conflicts in the information, and
  5. write up your findings.

The steps seem logical, and for now (until the standards are revised again) these are considered the five steps to follow.

A note about how certain words are defined in this book.  They are used here somewhat differently from other fields.  A genealogical fact is “proved” when someone has followed the GPS steps and written an acceptable conclusion.  If some other source is found one day, in some attic or basement or archive, that has different information, a researcher should be able to compare that information with the information and reasoning in the write-up and possibly come to a new conclusion.  We aren’t talking 100% certainty here.  Next “analysis.”  Analysis here is narrowly defined as analyzing whether a source is original, derivative, or authored, and whether the information is primary, secondary, or indeterminable.  From my engineering background, I usually consider analysis to be defined as looking closely at anything.  But here analysis is more narrowly defined.  Last, “correlation.”  Correlation here is defined as comparing two or more pieces of information.  Again, as an engineer I instinctively think of plots and the warning that “correlation does not imply causation” when I hear that term.  But this is a more general definition of correlation.

Throughout the book the author takes the reader through the genealogy proof standard.  He covers additional points, like defining a good research question to start with.  After each chapter is a set of study questions.  Give yourself time to do those questions, and see how the text applies to real-world examples.  I read the text first without doing the questions, then came back for a second pass and did them, and I have gotten more out of it now by working through the questions.  One of my favorite sections of the book is in Chapter 8, a good checklist of eleven questions that give a slightly expanded form of the GPS.  If a researcher can say yes to those eleven steps, they have followed the GPS and done quality research, research that could potentially be published in the NGSQ or submitted in a BCG application.

For comparison, another recent book on methodology for genealogy research is Elements of Genealogical Analysis by Robert Charles Anderson.  I also had a chance to read this book this summer.  Mr. Anderson is an expert on early colonial New England research, though his methodology is meant to apply to all times and places.  The author has published at least one article in the NGSQ and references the BCG Standards Manual in his book (p. 80).  His research methodology generally follows the GPS.  But this book goes into research steps more in depth.  Much of the book’s focus is determining whether two references to individuals in records are referencing the same individual.  Also, there is more a focus on listing the confidence level of our statements, like stating a conclusion as being almost certain versus highly probable versus probable, and the like.  Unlike Jones, this author states that”one verified, reliable, contemporary record is necessary and sufficient” to claim the existence of an individual and a genealogical relationship (p. 59).  In contrast, Mastering Genealogical Proof, says that for the first GPS step, thorough research, there must be “At least two independently-created items in agreement,” including “Some primary information” and “Some original records” (Ch. 3).  Of course, having more sources in agreement is always better.  Just to be aware that in some realms of genealogy, including Anderson’s work and some lineage society applications (including the DAR), one quality source is sufficient.  This is more of a nuance than a conflict.  Both books agree that we want quality research.  But they do define “quality” differently.

Overall, Mastering Genealogical Proof is a very good book that elaborates on the Genealogy Proof Standard.  This methodology leads to better quality research.  In addition, because the vocabulary of GPS is used in spheres where many of the most influential genealogists do their work, this will give you more cultural knowledge to learn from them at seminars and the like.  Buy the physical book, and give yourself some time to really analyze the articles in the appendices and complete the chapter questions.

For reference, the errata for the book are posted on the NGS website here.

Also for reference, if you happen to also get the Kindle version of the book and have access to the NGSQ issues by being a NGS member (or other means), the complete versions of the articles in the Appendices with all their charts and such are found:

  • Article A: NGS Quarterly 97 (March 2009): 29-38
  • Article B: NGS Quarterly 96 (June 2008): 101–120

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